Imagine the lone prospector who has searched his entire life for the mother lode, as he stumbles upon a vein of gold worth millions in "them thar hills" and then watches the missiles of Armageddon fly overhead, announcing the end of the world. Or reminisce to The Twilight Zone episode where a myopic book nerd (played by Burgess Meredith) suffers through the end of the world but finds his true love intact -- the library with all the books and time he's ever wanted, only to have his glasses smashed in a freak accident.
Perhaps not quite as dramatically as those scenarios, Etherlords by Russian-based Nival Interactive nonetheless takes the genre starved collectible-card gamer and turn-based combat connoisseur to the edge of greatness, only to leave them teetering on the brink with unfulfilled potential. It's like having a Corvette and suffering from the Meat Loaf lament, All Revved Up With No Place To Go.
Indeed, Etherlords has all the ingredients for a monster game experience. Four distinct races, each with unique abilities to tap into specific ether (akin to mana) pools of chaos, motion, vitality and synthesis, vie for supremacy in a race to the all-empowering Temple of Time. Combat, while not particularly innovative in the way of collectible trading card games, is a vast resource waiting to be exploited with over 300 spells and 120 creatures at the command of 64 heroes spread among the Chaots, Kinets, Vitals and Synthets.
The permutations of deck-building are endless and the Duel mode of gameplay offers several arenas for tweaking, stacking and randomizing thousands of death wielding and protective combinations. Other than ether, resources are limited to only seven types: two uncommon plants (mandrake root and black lotus), four rare minerals (one favored by each race), and one uniquely powerful and hard to find ingredient, Frozen Flame. All seven can be replenished or accumulated each day and channeled for use with specific spells.
For more complex spells, runes must be bought from specialty shops or wrangled from wandering merchants. In campaign or single-mission games, heroes wander the territory and explore for resources, encounter enemies, trade with other heroes, or disciver artifacts that have unique properties. If this sounds a bit familiar it is, especially to those inured to the gameplay of Heroes of Might and Magic and even the adventurous module of Magic: The Gathering. However, heroes in Etherlords never get their hands messy -- all combat is effected strictly through the summoning of creatures.
Creatures have innate attack and/or defense attributes (power and toughness), and most can be augmented or debilitated by hero spell casting. Heroes never attack each other physically, only through spells and creatures. The major objective of the missions and campaigns is usually to be the last race standing by destroying the opponents' citadel of strength (a castle), although some missions carry lesser goals. A profusion of hero specialization skills, upgrades, spells, enchantments, sorcery, artifacts, training facilities, global spells, and specialized structures offer a breathtaking spin to the confrontational fun.
Combat consists of four phases, beginning with the initial random selection of five spells from a possible fifteen available in your hero's spell book of 15 (the limit at any given time). Other effects such as the alignment of the stars and random occurrences of ether fluctuation (quanta) can mess with carefully designed strategic plans. After summoning creatures and giving orders, subject to the amount of ether you have on hand each turn, the attack phase gives way to the enemy's defense phase, and moves in turn to the enemy's attack phase, with the round completed by your defense phase.
An interesting innovation is the award of an extra spell to the defendant at the beginning of each battle, which serves as compensation for the aggressive action initialized by his opponent. Diplomacy and trade between heroes have a lesser impact on gameplay than combat, but serve to confound the overall strategic planning for tactical battles.
Despite the astonishing depth of gameplay, the endless possibilities in combat and deck building, and the beautifully rendered graphics of sharp, crystal clear backgrounds and characters, Etherlords ultimately fails to fully satisfy due to the limitations imposed by the designers. Only ten single-player missions are provided to supplement the two campaigns offered. Unfortunately, gameplay in the campaigns requires a certain amount of patience, as you slowly realize the computer opponents often seem to have advantages in strength and creature support.
The shortcomings manifested by the paucity of missions and diabolical difficulty of the campaigns, coupled with the lamentable exclusion of a random map generator or scenario-builder, relegates the game to a short life, unless one finds equitable and honest opponents via the Internet. As anyone who has played Magic: The Gathering in that format knows, unscrupulous veteran deck builders will hold the upper hand until experience catches up.
Etherlords fairly screams for add-ons to expand the single-player mode of play. One can only imagine the unlimited possibilities of adding additional races, creatures, spells and ether pools to enhance what could easily become a classic turn-based battle-fest with some creative expansions. For now, the game has enough to really whet your appetite, but the dessert bar is closed.
Graphics: Visually stunning characters, smooth animations and gorgeous backgrounds.
Sound: Minimal voices, mostly heroes chanting spells, with good, unobtrusive music.
Enjoyment: Gameplay is highly addictive with lots of room for strategic maneuvering and decision-making in battles. Lack of random map generation for the single-player games, or a scenario-builder, limit possibilities and thwart would be mod-makers. Huge mix of spells available for the four races and the vast array of creatures keep play lively and interesting.
Replay Value: Despite limitations, the endless permutations possible in deck building is astounding. Coupled with the random distribution of spells within battles, diverse gameplay is assured.
People who downloaded Etherlords have also downloaded:
Etherlords 2, Empire Earth II, Empire Earth, Empire of Magic, Europa 1400: The Guild, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, Emperor: Battle for Dune, Dungeon Keeper Gold
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